Lavinia Goodell: Wisconsin's First Woman Lawyer

The first woman lawyer admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court had to fight for that status, overcoming opposition from the most powerful legal figure in the state. Lavinia Goodell (1839-1880) was also one of the first female trial lawyers in the United States, a nationally-respected writer, a Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, a candidate for Janesville City Attorney, a successful lobbyist, a jail reformer, and a temperance advocate. Yet she is undeservedly obscure. Another woman’s likeness adorns her spot in books, on the web, and at the Rock County Courthouse. Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer aims to secure her rightful place in history.

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“The Brooklyn sanitary fair was a magnificent affair.”

Lavinia Goodell, March 10, 1864

In 1864, Lavinia Goodell was living in Brooklyn with her parents and working with her father in editing the Principia anti-slavery newspaper. In her spare time, Lavinia enjoyed taking in cultural events and expositions. In March of 1864, along with thousands of other people, she visited the Brooklyn sanitary fair.

During the Civil War, sanitary fairs were held to raise money for the war effort in
Continue Reading “The Brooklyn sanitary fair was a magnificent affair.”

“Mind proudly asserts its superiority over matter.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 1859

Lavinia Goodell’s contributions to the Principia, her father’s anti-slavery newspaper, have been discussed in prior posts. (Click here and here to learn more.) None of Lavinia’s pieces bear her full name. We first learned that Lavinia wrote articles for the Principia when we reviewed an unpublished biography written by Elisabeth S. Peck, a long time history teacher at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where the William Goodell family
Continue Reading “Mind proudly asserts its superiority over matter.”

Josiah Cady to Lavinia Goodell, July 14, 1854

Deacon Josiah Cady, Lavinia Goodell’s maternal grandfather, was born in Killingly, Connecticut in 1774. He lived in Providence, Rhode Island much of his adult life. An 1830 census listed his occupation as shoemaker.

Josiah played a prominent role in the Goodell family. William Goodell, Lavinia’s father, was boarding with Josiah in Providence in 1812 when he met – and became smitten with – Josiah’s daughter Clarissa. William and Clarissa married in
Continue Reading “It s Very Proper for a Man of Fourscore to be so Honored.”

“I followed the custom of the City by calling on several acquaintances.”

William Goodell, January 5, 1827

During the nineteenth century, it was customary to make social calls on New Year’s Day. While ladies remained at home to receive guests, gentlemen made the rounds of households in their circle.

Lavinia Goodell’s family maintained this tradition throughout her lifetime. Her diary entry for January 1, 1873 reported, “Father made calls” while she and her mother “prepared for calls but
Continue Reading “I followed the custom of the City by calling on several acquaintances.”

“Wouldn’t it be dreadful to have a drunkard for a father?”
“Susy’s Christmas” by Lavinia Goodell, published in the Principia January 1, 1863

Lavinia Goodell was an active participant in the temperance movement. In 1873 she helped form Janesville’s Ladies Temperance Union. In 1875, she ran for Janesville city attorney on the temperance ticket. (Although she was unsuccessful, she got 60 votes at a time when only men could cast ballots.)

Lavinia’s temperance advocacy began in her youth,
Continue Reading “Wouldn’t it be dreadful to have a drunkard for a father?”

The real Lavinia Goodell now welcomes Rock County Courthouse visitors

When we launched this website in 2019, we shared a post called “A case of mistaken identity,” which explained how, back in 1959, an image of an unknown woman was erroneously sent to a New York author who had requested a photo of Lavinia Goodell. For sixty years, the unknown woman’s face graced books and articles about Lavinia Goodell and was also displayed on a large mural on
Continue Reading The real Lavinia Goodell now welcomes Rock County Courthouse visitors

Lavinia Goodell, July 1861

Prior to moving to Janesville, Wisconsin in 1871, Lavinia Goodell had spent sixteen years living in Brooklyn and one year in Manhattan. Lavinia enjoyed the “society” of a big city. She liked to attend lectures, go to exhibitions, and visit friends. But she also enjoyed vacations out of the city, particularly when she had the opportunity to visit her sister, Maria Frost

Maria’s husband Lewis was a pastor. The Frosts tended to move every few
Continue Reading “Goodbye, City! Welcome, Country!”

Lavinia Goodell, June 1862

From 1859 until 1865, Lavinia  Goodell’s father was the editor of the anti-slavery newspaper the Principia, and Lavinia worked alongside him in the paper’s offices in lower Manhattan. She started out writing short pieces, then graduated to longer stories, and eventually served as a co-editor. None of her pieces bear her full name. Many are signed with her initials and some with pseudonyms. We have been able to identify approximately fifty of Lavinia’s Principia
Continue Reading “Don’t You Wish you Were an Editor?”

New York Times, April 25, 1870

We launched this website two years ago with a post titled “A case of mistaken identity,” which explained how we had discovered that a photograph that people had believed to be Lavinia Goodell was not her at all. We commented that historical research is a lot like detective work. You must follow the facts wherever they lead, and if you find errors in the historical record, you must try to correct them. This
Continue Reading “In the Matter of William and Sylvanus Lyon, Bankrupts.”

Clarissa Goodell, July 22, 1861

Lavinia Goodell and her family lived through the Civil War, and their correspondence gives us a bird’s eye view of those turbulent times.

The first major land battle of the war occurred on July 21, 1861 at Manassas, Virginia. It is now commonly referred to as the Battle of Bull’s Run. After fighting on the defensive for most of the day, the Confederates rallied and were able to break the Union right flank. The
Continue Reading “The News of the Great Battle is Very Sad.”

Maria Frost, January 21, 1856.

Lavinia Goodell published numerous articles and stories in her lifetime, but she was not the only family member with literary tendencies. Her father, William Goodell, was a prolific writer who authored many books and countless articles, poems, and letters to the editor. It is not as well known that Lavinia’s sister, Maria Goodell Frost,  was also a published author and was the only Goodell sister to publish a book.

Maria Goodell Frost

In 1855,
Continue Reading “I am Afraid You Will be Disappointed about the Book”

William Goodell, August 7, 1869

Lavinia Goodell’s mother’s only brother, Isaac Cady, was a prosperous bookseller and publisher in Providence, Rhode Island.

Isaac H. Cady

In 1840, Lavinia’s mother, Clarissa, reported to her father, Josiah Cady, that the family had seen Isaac’s advertisement in the newspaper and that Lavinia’s fourteen-year-old sister Maria said she should like to step into his bookstore. Lavinia’s mother said, “I told her Uncle would not like to have her handle his books.”

Isaac Cady
Continue Reading “We are in Possession of Our Share of the Estate of Your Late Uncle, Isaac H. Cady”

Clarissa Goodell to Lavinia Goodell, September 21, 1867

Mira Hill was one of the many women who played an important role in Lavinia Goodell’s life.

Mira Hill, Lavinia Goodell’s great aunt

Mira was Lavinia’s great aunt, the half sister of her maternal grandfather, Josiah Cady. Mira married John Wheeler Hill, a policeman, and for many years the couple lived in the Green Point section of Brooklyn. In the 1860s, after Lavinia’s parents moved to Lebanon, Connecticut, Lavinia lived with
Continue Reading “I Am Glad Aunt Mira is So Kind as to Board You.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 18, 1873

Lavinia Goodell’s relationship with Janesville, Wisconsin attorney Pliny Norcross was complicated. He assisted her in her legal studies and moved her application to be admitted to the Rock County bar, but when hiring law clerks and associates for his law firm, he chose young men who lacked Lavinia’s intellect and work ethic. He declined to act as Lavinia’s co-counsel on an important case, and when serving as opposing counsel on a small suit, he
Continue Reading “Mr. Norcross Called with a Quantity of Legal Writing He Wanted Me to Do at Once.”

Clarissa Goodell, September 6, 1866

Like most families in the nineteenth century, the Goodells experienced the premature deaths of family members, including Lavinia’s two year old niece Harriet Frost, an unnamed infant nephew,  and her twenty-three year old cousin Amanda Goodell. In 1866, Lavinia lost another cousin, thirty-seven year old Caroline Smith Ellsworth.

Caroline Smith Ellsworth

Carrie was born in 1829, the only child of Lavinia’s mother’s sister, Lois Cady, and her husband,
Continue Reading “Aunt Lois feels Carrie’s death more and more every day.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 22, 1869

In her 1879 will, Lavinia Goodell named her uncle, Josiah Cleaveland Cady as trustee.

Cleaveland, (sometimes spelled Cleveland) as he was called, was born in 1837, the son of Lavinia’s mother’s father, Deacon Josiah Cady, and his second wife, Lydia. Cleaveland was more than thirty years Clarissa Goodell’s junior and was only two years older than Lavinia. The Cadys lived in Providence, Rhode Island, but there was always concern about disease in cities,
Continue Reading “Poor Cleaveland is in deep affliction.”